I kept a running tally.
Tears streamed down my face nine times during the series finale of Parenthood.
Four of those were single-tear byproducts of my eyes pooling with moisture, struck by fleeting but powerful moments between the wonderful Bravermans. Four were legitimate crying episodes, fueled by six seasons of falling completely in love with these characters and being utterly shattered by the gravity of the small moments they were encountering.
And then there was The Big One. The one, continuous, five-minute sob. The one that started with the word “Zeke” and didn’t end until all of the flash-forwards were finished and the screen cut to black. The one Parenthood earned after 103 episodes of some of the most compassionate, underrated drama on television.
As any fan of this show—by emotional maestro Jason Katims, the genius behind NBC’s other underrated gem, Friday Night Lights—will tell you, Parenthood was a special show.
It tackled cancer and autism and aging with dignity, and interracial relationships and adoption and divorce and everything in between, and tackled it all with respect, spectacular writing, intimate directing, and unrivaled acting. From the gut-punch moments of the pilot—where Adam (Peter Krause) tearfully tells his father (Craig T. Nelson), “I think there’s something wrong with my son”—to the symphony of feelings that was Sarah’s (Lauren Graham) wedding to Hank (Ray Romano) in the finale, Parenthood just seemed to “get” something. It got us.
And so when Thursday night’s series finale began and the guitar strings of its theme, “Forever Young,” started strumming—echoing the episode’s pitch-perfect title, “May God Bless and Keep You Always”—the hot lump in my throat already began to form, gearing up for the weekly emotional catharsis the show had become for me and so many other viewers. After all, the ritualistic shedding of the tears while watching the Bravermans is part of why we all kept tuning in.
Really, these people were so good at getting us to cry, I’m not entirely convinced that NBC and the makers of Parenthood haven’t been in cahoots with Kleenex this entire time.
But focusing just on the tears does a grave disservice to this excellent program, a TV series that we all talk about in the context of how hard it makes us cry, when its calling card has always been, simply, how hard it makes us feel. How expertly it captures the humanity and nuance and emotional complexity of what it means to be in a family: the joy, the brutality, the closeness, the tension, and, yes, the sadness, too.
I was acutely aware of all those things, the joy and the sadness and everything in between, during Thursday’s finale. I tried to keep a log of the standout moments, but the list kept running on and on.
There was the delight of watching everyone frenetically planning—the only way the Bravermans know how to do anything—Sarah’s wedding at the beginning of the episode. There was the heartbreaking way Nelson delivers the line “You take care of my daughter” when Hank asks Zeke for permission to marry Sarah…and then Zeke’s gutting realization that the wedding is so rushed so that they can have it before he dies. I couldn’t help a tear-soaked smile while watching Max (Max Burkholder) finally dancing with a girl—and an even bigger one while watching Kristina (Monica Potter) and Adam (Krause) beam with pride at the sight.
Then there was the conversation between Zeke and Sarah on the porch, the biggest tearjerker until the joyously somber final sequence. “Have I been a good father?” Zeke asks. Sarah’s reply: “The very best.”
That’s the other thing about the writing and these characters: They have the conversations you want to have with your own family. Or maybe the conversations you regret you didn’t have, or wish you had the kind of relationship where they were worth having, or maybe knew deep down you’d implicitly had with someone, though no words were said.
Throughout Parenthood’s run, we’ve all had our personal connections to a storyline that made the show at times hard to watch, but because of that all the more necessary to watch.
It might have been that we’ve had a parent who faced a cancer battle with all the fear, grace, and humor that Kristina did. (That was an arc responsible for the best moments not just on Parenthood, but on TV, period, these past six years.) It might have been that we know someone coping with the challenges of raising a child with autism. Maybe it was the realness of working through a marriage like Joel and Julia’s (Sam Jaeger and Erika Christensen), or the complicated beauty of a relationship between a mother and daughter like Sarah and Amber (Mae Whitman).
In an age of television so fixated on antiheroes, thrills, and the darkness of human nature, that Katims boldly produced a show about the minutiae of being part of a family was a feat that can’t be overlooked. He captured the gravity in the mundane and accessed the beating heart of our relationships, finding a way to make the two words TV executives and viewers cringe at—“family drama”—engrossing and enriching, but also with a genuineness and earnestness that skirted the trap of corniness, schmaltz, and emotional manipulation.
This is a show that gets a sprawling family of more than a dozen people miraculously together for a teeball game and all of a sudden you’re weeping hysterically while watching it. What could possibly happen at a goddamn teeball game that makes you cry that hard? It’s the love between these characters. It’s the love.
Has there even been an ensemble of actors who appeared so deeply, and so seamlessly, in love? Has there ever been as many close-ups of actors’ eyes welling with tears? Has there even be an ensemble of actors so good at believably crying, of conjuring up raw, genuine emotion?
We could go on and on about the talents of this cast. About the astounding nuance Max Burkholder brought to playing a child with autism. About the sheer brilliance of Monica Potter’s performance as Kristina—and the cruelty that she never received an Emmy nomination for the combination of emotional brittleness and inspirational strength she brought to the role. About the revelation that Dax Shepard has been as Crosby, and about how flabbergasted we were that Ray Romano managed to win us over with his soulful portrayal of Hank.
And we could go on and on, especially after the series finale, about the talents of Craig T. Nelson, who simultaneously stole and broke our hearts playing Zeke this past season.
This was a standout show that produced a standout finale. It might have ended as we always expected, with the death of the character that kept this family together, the resilience of the family that would always go on without him, and the feeling that Parenthood never got the respect or the attention it was owed.
But it’s nice that it’s ending when we’re still willing to give it—and it’s still deserving of—a round of applause on its way out. A round of applause and a bucket of tears. So many tears. All of the tears.